Starvation and dehydration

What if my newborn baby isn’t eating well at all?

If a baby is not feeding effectively after birth, it is extremely important that caregivers address the issue. Newborn babies need milk to live and if they don’t get enough, they face starvation. It begins with excessive weight loss and progresses through jaundice, dehydration, low blood pressure, brain damage, and eventually death. Even after recovering, babies may suffer long-term effects. 

A) Describing starvation

Newborn babies need milk to live. Those who don't will show signs of underfeeding and face the following:

  1. Excessive weight loss
  2. Jaundice
  3. Low blood sugar levels
  4. Dehydration with:
    1. A dry mouth
    2. A sunken soft spot on the top of the head (fontanelle)
    3. Skin that won’t return to its normal shape after being pinched
    4. High levels of sodium (hypernatremia) in the blood
  5. Lower blood pressure
  6. Not enough blood and sugar going to the brain
  7. Seizures
  8. Brain damage and lifelong disability (Sarin 2019)
  9. Kidney failure
  10. Blood that clots too easily (disseminated intravascular coagulation)
  11. Heart failure
  12. Death

Feeding problems that can lead to starvation are not uncommon. Indeed, the most common reasons babies are readmitted to hospital during the first month after leaving are feeding problems and jaundice caused by feeding problems (Young 2013).

It is that estimated that dehydration affects up to 2.2 per 1,000 babies born to first-time mothers (Boer 2016). Even after the babies recover, long-term problems from severe dehydration and starvation may persist (Boskabadi 2017).

If your baby is not feeding effectively after birth, it is extremely important that you address the issue. The solution includes fixing breastfeeding challenges,  supplementing with appropriate milk, and close monitoring of the baby by a health-care provider. Supplements can however, be given inappropriately.


Boer S, Unal S, van Wouwe JP, et al. Evidence Based Weighing Policy during the First Week to Prevent Neonatal Hypernatremic Dehydration while Breastfeeding. PLoS One. 2016 Dec 20;11(12):e0167313

Boskabadi H, Akhondian J, Afarideh M, et al. Long-Term Neurodevelopmental Outcome of Neonates with Hypernatremic Dehydration. Breastfeed Med. 2017 Apr;12:163-168
Sarin A, Thill A, Yaklin CW. Neonatal Hypernatremic Dehydration. Pediatr Ann. 2019 May 1;48(5):e197-e200
Young PC, Korgenski K, Buchi KF. Early readmission of newborns in a large health care system. Pediatrics. 2013 May;131(5):e1538-44